The goal of good technical communication is the creation of user-centered products that provide appropriate information in a clear and accessible manner. Those products surround us, almost invisibly, and yet many have no idea the profession even exists. Each time we open a website, use an app, read an interpretive sign at a historical site, glance through a catalog, or watch a how-to video, we are engaging with the work of someone in the technical communication field.
The Society for Technical Communication (STC) defines technical communication as comprising any form of communication that includes either:
- communicating about technical or specialized topics,
- using various technologies in communication, or
- providing step-by-step instructions.
History and Overview of Technical Communication
While most people think of the field of technical communication as beginning at the onset of the 20th century during World War I, in truth technical communication has been around as long as humans have used technology to expand their abilities. We had to explain to one another “how to” hunt that mastodon without getting killed, create the paints used in cave art, knap an arrowhead, weave a fishing skein, or shape clay into a pot. Those people who could explain the necessary skills were the ancestors of today’s technical communicators.
As different forms of writing and tracking evolved, the ancient Aztec, Babylonian, Chinese, and Egyptian civilizations made note of astronomical observations. Aristotle, in 353 BC, wrote a dictionary of philosophy terms. In the 12th century, Muhammad ibn Musa Al’Khowarizmi wrote a detailed exploration on the use of algorithms (which is the technique used in programming languages today). Geoffrey Chaucer, author of The Canterbury Tales, was also a technical writer and created a document in the late 1300s on the theory and use of the astrolabe, a tool that is used to measure the position of a ship at sea. Leonardo da Vinci filled notebooks with sketches and explanations of different technical devices including a prototype of a helicopter. Early scientists from Galileo to Robert Boyle to Isaac Newton were some of the Europeans who shaped technical communication as they explained how to build and use their devices (e.g. Boyle’s air pump) along with their theories of why.
The first and second World Wars pushed technical communication into the forefront as the need for documentation of the development and use of chemical explosives, poisonous gases, radar, and rocketry came into play. In addition, straightforward and user-friendly documentation was needed for manufacturing, medical, electronic, and aerospace industries.
In the 1980s and 1990s, with the advent of home computers, game systems, and the internet, the need for trained and qualified people in the technical communication field grew exponentially. This trend has only continued into the 21st century.
Technical Communication Products
Products created in the technical communication field are essentially limited only to the practitioner’s imagination and funding. They can be broken into two primary categories: written and audio/visual, and can be further broken into one of three areas:
- Conveying information: annual reports, audio narration, books, conference presentations, documentaries, feasibility reports, grant proposals, interpretive signs for parks or museums, knowledge base articles, medical studies, podcasts, proposals, technical reports, scientific articles, technical illustrations, vector drawings, vlogs, and white papers.
- Marketing: advertisements, brochures, catalogs, customer service scripts, newsletters, product packaging, product demonstrations, storyboarding, usability testing, and websites.
- Training and Clarifying: animation, e-learning, comics, FAQs, how-to videos, online and embedded help, patient education videos, policies and procedures, process flows, release notes, training manuals and courses, user guides, usability testing, user experience designs, web-based training, and wiki-pages.
Written materials tend to follow more discrete lines, while audio/visual tends to be more blended between the three areas. For example, web-based training will offer information as well as market add-on products to the user. Podcasts are often informational, educational, and promotional for whatever media site they are related to.
Required Skills in Technical Communication
The top skill required for technical communication jobs is effective writing – information created and designed for the needs of the specific audience. Because technical communication professionals often work in collaboration with others from different fields, the ability to be attentive to what others are saying, understand the points being made, and ask clarifying questions that will move the discussion and project forward are critical. Active listening must be paired with active speaking, being able to present ideas and work to a variety of audiences, including colleagues. In order to speak, listen, and write, training in critical thinking is the final piece of the puzzle – the ability to evaluate and analyze information, situations, and choices that will move the project toward the desired goal.
While the above skills are broad based and globally necessary, the practitioner’s specialty will require the ability to engage in more specific skills. For example, if the focus is in technical writing then knowing word processing and spreadsheet software in more than just a cursory way, in addition to technical editing and basic document layout and design, is typically a necessity.
For practitioners who are more interested in audio/visual products, there is a wealth of possibility that includes learning and specializing in animation; audio, photo, & video editing; presentations; and vector drawing. These are only some of the skills that are sought after in the job market.
Careers in Technical Communication
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (bls.gov) Occupational Outlook Handbook, the technical communication field is anticipating growth of 11 percent over the next eight years, faster than the average for all occupations surveyed by bls.gov. Job growth is expected to be focused in scientific and technical specializations, as well as web-based product support.
Technical communication specialists can be found in every professional niche including academic, corporate, engineering, financial, government, information technology, legal, media, military, nonprofit, medical, scientific, and transportation. A quick survey of recent job postings for technical communication included:
Business & Technical Application Analyst
Quality Validation Program Manager
Technical communication Specialist
Community Engagement Specialist
Patient & Family Engagement
Program Communicator & Coordinator
Infographics / Data Visualization Specialist
Digital Product Manager
Manager of Digital Experience
Multimedia Support Specialist
User Experience Designer
Digital Scholarship Developer
Technical Communication Lecturer
Electronic Warfare Technical Expert
Life Science Technical Writing Scientist
Medical Technical Writer
Rather than working as an employee, many graduates in the technical communication field prefer to work as freelancers or start their own small businesses serving their niche.
Training in Technical Communication
The STC website lists over 175 different colleges and universities that offer associate, bachelor’s, and master’s degrees or professional certificates in Technical Communication. While some of these programs can be found in Technical Communication departments, others can be found in Communication, English, Journalism, or Writing departments.
Most jobs in the Technical Communication field require at least a bachelor’s degree that relates to the work (e.g. Technical Communication, English, Engineering, Information Technology). Any of these bachelor’s degree will give students a broad overview of the field. In addition, most schools require a core curriculum of courses outside the department which could include art, business, math, psychology, or science courses. Bachelor’s programs in Technical Communication are often skill-based and include classes in digital imaging, editing, social media, website design, and writing. There are also bachelor’s programs in English or Professional Writing with concentrations in technical communication or technical writing.
One way to explore whether Technical Communication is the right career for you is to enroll in an associate degree program at a Community or Technical College. The specialty course work in these programs is often similar to that found in a Bachelor’s program. In addition, instead of taking four years to finish a bachelor’s degree, an associate degree can often be completed in two years or less, as students are not required to take the same number of general education courses outside of technical communication specific coursework. In this case, you may be ready to look for work after you finish your degree, or you can transfer your credits to a bachelor’s program and complete the final two years there.
Some students choose to continue their education and pursue a master’s degree in Technical Communication. People come to the field from a wide variety of other professions, and not everyone has a bachelor’s in Technical Communication, nor is it needed. A few of the reasons for pursuing a master’s could be: more in-depth training, better job opportunities and higher salaries, or intellectual curiosity. In addition, students receive the benefit of more access to professional organizations, networking, and opportunities for publishing in their area of interest. Depending on the particular program, coursework may focus more on theory-based instruction or enhanced professional skill sets. Some students might even enroll in a master’s program at the request of their employer, who could potentially pay for that education as well.
For more information on master’s degree programs, please visit our Master’s in Technical Communication Programs page, which contains a comprehensive directory of programs.
Finally, there is a movement in the U.S. away from formal academic degrees and toward certificate programs, especially in technology-based professions. This relieves individuals from the burden of debt, and allows for more agile flexibility in shifting specialties while being exposed to a broad range of opportunities. These program specialties are wide-ranging and include graphic design, digital imaging, multimedia applications, project management, and website design and development. More and more colleges and universities are offering certificate programs, along with professional organizations such as the STC and software companies such as Adobe and Microsoft.
Advice for Students Considering a Career in Technical Communication
If the skills, activities, and potential of the technical communication field are interesting to you, take some time to get to know yourself a little better. One way is to make a personal inventory. For example, go online and look at jobs in the technical communication field.
- Which jobs appeal to you?
- What are the requirements?
- What do you already enjoy doing?
- What additional skills will you need for a similar job?
- Do you need a degree for those skills? A certification? Can you get on-the-job training?
There are benefits and drawbacks to each of the choices. Making a personal inventory gives you the opportunity to become clear about what you want, how you can get it, what you are willing to give up for it, and what you are not. A resource for more in-depth exploration of how to decide is “What Color Is Your Parachute”. This book has been around, updated, and revised every year since 1975 and is one of the most popular and respected career advice books in print.
How to Succeed in Graduate School
A master’s degree program can be a surprise, whether you are entering directly from your undergraduate program or returning after time away. The most significant difference is the need to focus very clearly on your goals, the requirements for the program, and to take responsibility for your work, your actions, and your relationships with faculty and classmates.
If you do not already have a Dropbox, Google Drive, or OneDrive account, set one up and backup your work every single day. If you are working on a thesis or project, back it up more often. You do not want to lose your hard work. In addition, use cloud storage to create and build up your portfolio so that you have samples of your projects when you are ready to begin working.
You should understand and track the requirements and timelines for your coursework, exams, thesis or project, and public presentations. Create a plan for the semester, the year, and the whole of the program. If you are not sure, ask! Your advisor or another faculty member in your department will be able to assist you. If you do not have an advisor, find a faculty member who will, formally or informally, mentor you while you are in the program and meet with them regularly.
Your experience as a graduate student will be enhanced by your active participation with your department, on your campus, or with your classmates for students in an online program. From the moment you are accepted into your program, think of yourself as a member of your profession and your academic field. Attend conferences, seminars, and lectures – inside and beyond your department.
Look for opportunities! Collaborate with faculty and peers and be willing to start those conversations. Do not be afraid to look outside your department, collaborations with students in complementary programs could be the beginning of long-term professional relationships. Apply for fellowships, scholarships, and research grants within your school or with professional organizations in your field. Many professional organizations have student rates for memberships and to attend conferences and seminars. Attending these professional gatherings will help you maintain and expand your professional identity.
Finally, take responsibility for your well-being. Graduate school can consume your time and energy so it is up to you to ensure that you are sleeping enough, eating well, engaging in enjoyable activities outside of your academic work, and spending time with people you can share with and laugh with. Recognize the symptoms of stress, overwork, and overwhelm and address them quickly with your personal or campus resources. Consider being a model of well-being for your classmates.
Your master’s program has the potential to be one of the most challenging, satisfying, and inspiring times in your life. Find ways to appreciate and enjoy it.
Where to Learn New Skills
Many people come to the technical communication field after working in other professions. They may have limited experience with some of the necessary skills and want to prepare themselves for their new program. Sometimes, students want to enhance what they are learning in the classroom, or after graduation, by adding new skills to their portfolio.
Fortunately, there is a wealth of opportunity for self-paced learning of new skills. Lynda.com is a popular tutorial site that offers online training in almost any program or skill imaginable in the field. BrightTALK is another site that offers professional webinars in a variety of technology fields. All the professional organizations listed below have training that is focused on their specialty. In addition, every software company has training, some free and some for a fee, on their products.
So, while your academic education may end after your master’s degree, your professional development will continue throughout your career. While this is true for almost any profession from medical to plumbing, change in the technical communication field is more rapid than most, and your dedication to continuing education in your field or specialty is necessary for you to keep up with new technologies, skills, and developments. The best way to do this is through joining professional organizations. They offer training, a variety of publications, and the opportunity to network with others locally, nationally, or even globally, who are engaged with work similar to your own. They also have job boards for those who are looking for new opportunities.
Professional Organizations in Technical Communication and Related Fields
- American Copy Editors Society
- American Medical Writers Association
- Association of Teachers of Technical Writing (ATTW)
- European Association for Technical Communication (tekom)
- Institute of Scientific and Technical Communicators (ISTC)
- International Association of Business Communicators (IABC)
- National Association of Science Writers
- National Communication Association (NCA)
- Professional Association for Design (AIGA)
- Society for Technical Communication (STC)
- Usability Professionals’ Association (UPA)
Technical communication is a field that gives the practitioner the opportunity to engage and integrate both left- and right-brain activities. Understanding how to effectively organize information, research and analyze the needs of the specific audience, find the appropriate tools to get the message across, and present facts in an engaging manner is combined with creativity in words, visuals, and even sounds. Combining your personal interests with your professional skills and areas of specialization gives you the flexibility to create your personal niche in the technical communication world.
- Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Occupational Outlook Handbook: Technical Writers.” https://www.bls.gov/ooh/media-and-communication/technical-writers.htm (accessed June 4, 2018).
- Occupational Information Network/US Department of Labor/Employment and Training Administration. “Summary Report for: 27-3042.00 – Technical Writers.” https://www.onetonline.org/link/summary/27-3042.00 (accessed June 4, 2018).
- O’Hara, F. (2001) A Brief History of Technical Communication. In STC’s 48th Annual Conference Proceedings, 500-504.
- Society of Technical Communication. https://www.stc.org/ (accessed June 4, 2018).
- Society of Technical Communication. “Technical Communication Body of Knowledge”. https://www.tcbok.org/ (accessed June 4, 2018).